The best things in life arrive when you are not looking for them. Two weeks ago, I was looking forward to reading nonfiction — any nonfiction, I had been feeling overwhelmed by reading primarily fiction last year. When my friend (Nahid) told me about this book, my first thought was that it would be a book full of exposition about intelligence agencies and geopolitics. I’ll have to drag through this book, there will be things I won’t understand, and I might not even have the curiosity to understand. I decided to give it a read anyway. I had no expectations that in pages to come, there will be moments when I’ll forget to breathe, moments when my heart will be in my mouth, and moments when I’ll feel like a kid on the first rollercoaster ride of his life. How many times does it happen that the best things arrive when you are not looking for them?
This is the story of Oleg Gordievsky alias SUNBEAM alias GORMSSON alias GORNOV alias NOCTOM alias OVATION alias PIMLICO alias TICKLE (because important people have more than one name): colonel of the KGB (Secret Police Force of USSR) who becomes an agent for MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service). He was disenchanted with KGB, especially after the Soviet Rain on the Prague Spring. While working as an illegal in Denmark for KGB. He had attended classical-music concerts. He had devoured western literature. He had travelled to every corner of that country. And he did it sometimes in the spy business, but mostly for the pleasure of being able to do so. He had seen how beautiful life can be when you leave behind the cacophony of lies and the chains of propaganda. It was remarkable to learn that the ideology that originated to librate the unliberated ended up imprisoning an entire country. There are many reasons people attribute to why Oleg became a double agent, but the one that stands out is his cultural superiority.
There is a very good reason, he reflected, why ordinary Soviet citizens were not permitted to travel abroad: who but a fully indoctrinated KGB officer would be able to taste such freedom and resist the urge to stay?
Oleg after his recruitment to MI6 becomes the station chief of KGB in London and continues to help MI6 and the west understand how Kremlin works. He is instrumental in saving a nuclear disaster and strengthening British-Soviet ties by identifying Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet heir-apparent. He helps the western intelligence agencies filter the moles in their departments. And in some ways, he plays a subtle role in the dissolution of the USSR.
In 1985, Oleg is called back to Moscow abruptly. Somebody has betrayed him. KGB abducts him, drugs him, interrogate him for treason, but somehow releases him into ghettos. He is told to never work abroad again. KGB is just bidding its time, looking for solid proof against him, there is no hurry, and Oleg is left to rut like a mouse. How long will he be able to survive like that? Eventually, he’ll break down.
Years ago, MI6 had already planned for a situation like that, the plan to exfiltrate Oleg from USSR was called PIMLICO. Everyone knows that one cannot simply leave USSR without the Kremlin’s consent, especially if the one who is planning to leave is someone under suspicion of treachery. The chances of the success of that plan are slim…rather there are hardly any chances at all, and the repercussion of such a mission on diplomacy is immense. Yet, despite everything MI6 with the in-principle approval of then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher goes ahead with the PIMLICO. And they do that for a very simple but hard-to-swallow reason: morality.
In this book, you meet a man, who puts his life in danger for freedom and democracy, betraying his own family, friends, people, and country. His love for the idea he fought to protect takes precedence over his love for the woman he married. Every time Gordievsky is successful in a mission, you smile. Every time Gordievsky is close to getting caught, you pant. You feel his fears and his pains and his excitement. And you live through the story of this incredible man, meanwhile learning a thing or two about these intelligence officers making brush contacts, doing dead drops, or performing dry cleaning.
Oleg Gordievsky still lives a double life. To his suburban neighbors, the bowed, bearded old man living quietly behind the tall hedges is just another old-age pensioner, a person of little consequences. In reality he is someone else entirely, a figure of profound historical importance and a remarkable man: proud, shrewd, irascible, his brooding manner illuminated by sudden flashes of ironic humor. He is sometimes hard to like, and impossible not to admire. He has no regrets, he says, but from time to time he will break off in mid-conversations and stare darkly into a distance only he can see. He is one of the bravest people I have ever met, and one of the loneliest.
How many times does it happen that the best things arrive when you are not looking for them? I hoped to read nonfiction with the motive of educating myself but ended up with an experience that the best of novels find hard to provide.